I've been quasi-immersing myself in this Radio Disney culture for a few months now, and generally I feel it's helped me figure out how I, er, "feel" about music right now. But these corporate, religious, whatever ties are starting to freak me out a little.
Case in point: Aly and AJ, the 16- and 14-year-old Avril-ish sister duo whose song "No One" was pretty big on Radio Disney, Disney's "Ice Princess," and an appearance on "Alias" (on Disney-owned ABC). Apparently they had a single (which I haven't heard) that went to #2 on Billboard.
I wrote a column about this for the Ithacan, due out next week. I'd like to expound a little on what it is about Into the Rush, the Aly & AJ debut, that is so disconcerting.
Here are a few songs to listen to in progression.
I Am One of Them
Sticks and Stones
Walking on Sunshine
At the risk of being sued, I offer these tracks to give you an idea of how subversive this little teenpop gem of an album is -- the first song (track nine on the album) is about child kidnappings, the second about "bullies," the third about pre-marital sex (or at least some sort of physical relationship), the fourth a relatively faithful cover of the original.
Guess which song gets insane airplay on Radio Disney? Hint: it isn't the first three.
When I listen to this album, I find myself gradually overcome by feelings of discomfort, confusion, slight anger. Part of the unpleasantness comes from the music, which for the most part is much darker and sludgier than the covers suggest (or even "No One," the only other track I'd heard before I bought this).
But the lyrics are what really stand out. From "I Am One of Them":
I get in the car, another tragic disaster/ But I'm safe where I am, yet another is captured/ The traffic is stopped/ People just stare/ Another alert/ Does the kid have a prayer?/ Life is not fair!
Other verses reveal similarly intense revelations -- Aly (or AJ, whoever) describes an overwhelming but generalized fear of the outside word ("It's hard to look outside my door/ With all the news reports and more") and includes herself in a hypothetical group of potential victims ("It could have happened to me...'Cuz I am one of them").
I have so many conflicting, frustrating reactions to this song, and would like to express them articulately and systematically, but can already feel an aimless rant warming up. So let's start with the first red flag: the writing credits.
Most songs on the album are written by Aly and AJ Michalka (occasionally with the "help" of their revolving cast of producers). "I Am One of Them," however, was co-written by "C. Michalka," who has two other songwriting credits on the album. According to a few fan message boards, this is the sisters' mother.
But before I extend this hidden eyebrow-raiser to areas of adult culpability for whatever message this song presents, let me back up and examine the actual messages a bit more.
First, it's important to establish that Aly and AJ do have creative control over their lyrics. Despite the involvement of their mother in this case (which does need to be dealt with), most songs are written only by the girls themselves. Any expression of genuine fear they have of child kidnapping (or bullying, or sexual relationships) is valid, and I'm not suggesting that the girls shouldn't be concerned about these topics.
But they're not exactly eulogizing children who have been kidnapped -- this isn't "Runaway Train." They are identifying with "captured" children. In fact, I would argue that this song is primarily about Aly (or AJ). She has internalized these "news reports" and is expressing not sadness or anger about the subject, but rather an intense fear of becoming a victim herself. Even the chorus, perhaps unintentionally or coincidentally, makes the word "I" the focal point -- the melodic, and by extension lyrical, emphasis ("'cuz I-I-I-I-I...am one of them") is on the singer, not the victims.
In an abstract sense, this is actually a pretty affecting exploration of the consequences of an intensive, systematic focus on child kidnappings in major news media outlets. And I shouldn't forget in all of this that it's perfectly valid and necessary for children to be "on alert" for abduction -- it's a devastating reality. But are Aly and AJ offering any kind of productive commentary for children here? Are they telling children to be wary of strangers who approach them? To report domestic abuse? To take any of the precautions outlined on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website they name in their liner notes?
I suppose that wouldn't make for the catchiest song imaginable (I'd argue that the current version is pretty disturbing anyway). But do the adult institutions involved here -- namely Disney, who is responsible for literally every element of Aly & AJ's production and distribution -- have a responsibility not to present children with such a frightening, even paralyzing, vision of the outside world? This song isn't about avoiding possible abductors, it's about victimization and the imminence of tragedy.
Let's move on to "Sticks and Stones," which is a bit less immediately striking, but still worth discussing. On the surface, this song is about confronting bullies, presumably in an elementary, middle, or high school setting (Hollywood Records, founded and owned exclusively by Disney, markets heavily to the 6-14 demographic). But amid vague statements of empowerment ("sticks and stones won't break my soul/ Get out of the way I'm invincible/ Throw them down/ 'Cuz the one you hurt's not around, not around") there are lines like this:
In the end you'll be the victim/ You're the one who has to live with yourself/ And when you're reachin' for help/ They'll [sic] be no one, there's no one
I accept that this isn't necessarily as vindictive as it appears to me in print -- my first reaction to this line was to interpret it as a statement of vengeance; essentially, "you'll get yours in the end." But no, the line could simply mean that people who bully others eventually end up without friends to help them when they find themselves in trouble.
But if that's the case, why is the language so violent? In this verse, the power of the aggressor isn't simply defused through confidence and a rational perspective, which seems to be the case elswhere. The line reverses the power relationship -- the bully actually becomes the victim. I can't help but detect a certain thrill in Aly (or AJ)'s thought of the reversal. The repetition of "no one" does seem somewhat cruel and vengeful. There's a palpable excitement in the idea of "no one -- no one!" helping a former bully.
Pair this view with the constant, invisible threat of attack from a total stranger (which is to say nothing of the fact that most childhood kidnappings happen inside the family), and we're moving uncomfortably close to post-9/11 fear-mongering logic: Aly and AJ are under constant threat of attack by unknown predators and, when not introspectively fretting about the likelihood of attack, the girls must be ruthless in dealing with antagonistic forces.
The political implications of the worldview presented in this assessment may seem far-fetched, but both of these songs center on social issues largely framed by two defining events in the lives of the young audience Aly & AJ are directly addressing: Columbine (the link to "Sticks and Stones" seems clear) and the September 11th attacks (in regard to news media fear tactics, including disproportionate coverage of non-family child kidnappings).
What is the role of adult or institutional culpability? First, Disney. Disney has marketed this group to a child audience (the magic 6-14 demographic) through channels which the company controls completely and with remarkable efficiency. If you have already heard Aly and AJ, it was probably through some media channel of the Disney corporation. There is no question that Disney is acutely conscious of the content on their albums (and Into the Rush certainly belongs to Disney in any context imaginable -- publishing rights, copyright, etc.). This is a company that wouldn't allow the line "I'm not that innocent" from "Oops! ...I Did It Again" on its radio station because it was too risque. "Radio Disney edits" of popular songs are liberal and plentiful.
Second, Christian music channels. Aly and AJ are comfortable with their spirituality, and join the ranks of Kelly Clarkson and the Jump5 (among many, many others) in expressing their faith openly, if not in their lyrics (explicitly, though Jump 5 is pretty explicit in that sense), at least in their liner notes. From "Aly and AJ's Special Thank You's":
To our Bestest Friend and Savior...you are everything to us! We would like to thank our Mom and Dad for raising us with spiritual wisdom in a loving environment...
Touching, personal, honest... and notably less conspicuous than Kelly Clarkson's shout-outs on Breakaway:
God, you are so gracious and giving. there are no words to describe my love and passion for you. ...i CANNOT do anything without you. [...] I have no idea why God has blessed me with so much, but I do know that I will never take it for granted and will always remember my roots and my desires. [...] God bless y'all
The question that Aly & AJ's piety raises is the underlying religious implications in the content of their songs. I'll avoid the debate as to whether or not we should mentally capitalize the "Y" in the word "you" in love songs (Jump5 actually do this in their liner notes, i.e. "All I want is You/ You're all I ever need/ All I want to do/ Is be with You forever"). Again, my issue here is not with Aly & AJ themselves, who perhaps should be telling the boys to "slow down," particularly in light of their faith. My issue is again with Disney, the company that is implicitly supporting Christian artists in supposedly neutral and non-religious media outlets (I would hope they're intended to be, anyway, considering they own a fifth of the media...fodder for another much longer rant).
Jump5 would be the exemplar of this insidious religious programming, but Aly & AJ are more interesting because they aren't supposed to be a "Christian group." Jump5 are on the Sparrow label, a subsidiary of EMI Christian Music Group, and are fairly blunt about their "mission": "to spread God's Word." But Disney's Hollywood Records recently made a distribution deal with EMI CMG, and are now distributing many of their albums directly through Christian music channels. It's of little consolation that Christian music critics don't consider Into the Rush "Christian enough":
In the song "In a Second," the duo sings, "You're all the things I'm looking for/Everything and so much more You are just perfect," but who are they singing to? God? A boy? Their parents? It's hard to tell.
Hm, good point, actually.
To add one final layer of insidiousness to the proceedings, let's look at how Into the Rush was promoted. There have been three singles (with a fourth, "Rush," on the way) that have each become enormously popular on Radio Disney. Those singles are "No One," "Walking on Sunshine," and "Do You Believe in Magic?" respectively. The two covers are overtly misrepresentative of the rest of the album's material -- they're pretty much identical to the original versions. "No One" is harmless, and equally misrepresentative of both the musical and lyrical content elsewhere on the album. It's an acoustic ballad covering pretty innocuous subject matter ("finding yourself," I guess), and it pretty shamelessly borrows the melody from Avril Lavigne's "I'm With You" (that's why it sounded familiar -- thanks Christianity Today!).
Why? Why is this album being so deviously marketed? Why did Aly and AJ's parents encourage them to write such disturbing songs? And why does Disney want their predominately child audience to absorb these songs when they clearly aren't prepared to play the material in question on their own radio network? Aly & AJ are indicative of something, some frightening commentary on young people or corporate brainwashing or underhanded religious indoctrination or SOMETHING, but I'm frustrated as to what it is exactly.
Do kids really want this music? Are they in need of validation to a generalized threat the outside world presents? Is this view informed primarily by the news and entertainment media they're being exposed to? Are their parents encouraging this worldview, as Aly & AJ's seem to be (to the point of co-writing their most disturbing song)? Is Disney turning the children of America into zealous Christian automatons with gross misperceptions about the constant dangers children potentially face in the outside world? Does this keep them inside watching the Disney Channel and listening to Radio Disney? What the fuck is going on here?
AND WHY HAVE I BEEN LISTENING TO THIS ALBUM FOR THREE DAYS STRAIGHT WITHOUT STOPPING????
Sigh. Happy Skye Friday, folks.
Skye Sweetnam - Part of Your World (from The Little Mermaid)